Pride Project #26 – Leonard Matlovich

Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich won the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War but was discharged when he came out as gay to his superiors and refused to sign a pledge to “never practice homosexuality again”.

This was a calculated move to try to test anti-gay policies in court, and with his spotless record, Matlovich was the perfect face of this campaign.

Time magazine featured him on its cover in 1975, the first openly gay person to land there, and the first time the gay rights movement was featured. This was back when Time was a big deal and brought the queer struggle to lots of American homes via their mailboxes.

Matlovich sued for reinstatement and won in court, but the Air Force preferred that he accept a financial settlement instead of reenlistsing. It was only $160,000, but he took it. He became politically active, and used his celebrity status to campaign against various anti-gay initiatives around the country.

In his last public speech, in 1988 as he was dying from AIDS, he said:

…And I want you to look at the flag, our rainbow flag, and I want you to look at it with pride in your heart, because we too have a dream. And what is our dream? Ours is more than an American dream. It’s a universal dream. Because in South Africa, we’re black and white, and in Northern Ireland, we’re Protestant and Catholic, and in Israel we’re Jew and Muslim. And our mission is to reach out and teach people to love, and not to hate…And in the AIDS crisis – and I have AIDS – and in the AIDS crisis, if there is any one word that describes our community’s reaction to AIDS, that word is love, love, love.

If you’re not already crying, there’s more. His tombstone reads:

When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Not long after his death, I saw these words (or something very like them) on a panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt when it came to UC Berkeley. I don’t remember the name on panel, if it was Leonard’s or belonged to someone else in similar circumstances, but I vividly remember reading it and crying huge, sobbing tears in the middle of Sproul Plaza.

Those remain some of the most powerful words I’ve ever read in my life.

Pride Project #25 – Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Sylvia Rivera, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Sylvia, like many queer kids, became homeless as a kid because her family (in this case, her grandmother who was raising her) didn’t approve of her queer identity. The queer community, especially drag queens, took her under their wing and christened her “Sylvia”.

Her experiences hustling in Times Square and living at the Christopher Street piers in NYC fueled her later advocacy for homeless queer youth and trans women of color. She always maintained that she was there at the Stonewall Inn during the riots in 1969 (though some, including her best friend, say that she wasn’t).

In 2015, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery included her portrait in its collection, making her the first trans person represented there.

You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

Sylvia Rivera, on the Stonewall Riots

Pride Project #24 – Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Sor Juana, a nun who lived in New Spain (colonial Mexico) in the 17th century, taught herself to read in her grandfather’s library and entered the convent to continue her studies (the only avenue open to a girl at that time). Her living quarters, filled with books, became the salon of the day, where contemporary cultural progressives gathered. She was an early feminist, with her most famous work being a manifesto that advocated for the education of girls and women.

She also wrote love poems to a countess.

Pride Project #23 – St. Brigid

St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

St. Brigid was an early Catholic nun, (who was probably a Celtic goddess and “Christianized”; her feast day is the same as the Druid Imbolc, which celebrates spring). She founded convents all over Ireland that focused on education and art. I read somewhere that she also enjoyed beer.

She was very close with another nun named Darlughdach, who was significantly younger. They shared a bed together at the convent, and were so close that when Brigid had a vision of her upcoming death, Darlughdach prayed that she might have a simultaneous death, because she didn’t want to live without Brigid. Brigid begged her to hold on for a year, to continue Brigid’s work at the monastery, and Darlughdach died exactly one year later, to the day.

Pride Project #22 – Dr. James Barry

Dr. James Barry, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
Dr. James Barry, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

Circa 1800, James dressed as a boy and entered college at age 10, graduated medical school at 13 and became a surgeon in the British army.

This red-headed Irishman’s interests and accomplishments revolutionized medicine:

  • he promoted hygienic medical practices before that was common
  • he relished difficult assignments to tropical areas with deadly diseases
  • he treated the poor, Blacks, prisoners, and others at a time when doctors could – and did – refuse to treat these people
  • he called attention to the inhumane conditions in insane asylums
  • he posted notices to educate the public about symptoms of and precautions against smallpox, plague, and other diseases
  • he performed the first Caesarean section in which Mom and Baby both lived

As if he weren’t already proven to be brilliant, ahead of his time, and on the right side of everything, he was also against slavery.

At his death, it was revealed that he was born a woman, when his body was undressed to prepare for burial. This was explicitly against his wishes – the undressing, not necessarily the burial – since he’d repeatedly stated his desire for his body to remain untreated in any way, and to be buried in the clothes in which he expired, with only a sheet wrapped around the whole package. No undressing – it was very clear, and expressed many times during the last 25 years of his life, at least.

Interestingly, the feminist and queer movements have begun a tug-of-war over whose camp he belongs to…was James a woman forced to live as a man in order to realize a dream of becoming a surgeon – a course that wasn’t open to females – or a queer who identified as a man and lived his life accordingly?

There was a Hollywood movie several years ago that spun James’ biography by introducing a heterosexual love affair with a male governor who fell in love with James as a woman. This is unsubstantiated by any historical documentation. Some accounts that I suspect have been “straightened up” (we’ve seen it before) state that the servant who undressed James at death saw abdominal stretch marks that proved James had been pregnant into late term.

Although we’ll never know the true story – James never recorded any thoughts on the subject – this feminist has to side with the queers.

First, there’s his lifelong insistence on never being undressed, even at death. If James were living as a man only for career purposes, the case could be made that the empowered-female-within would have wanted to be unmasked at the end of life.

But my best piece of evidence? Written accounts call James a notorious “lady-killer”!

Pride Project #21 – Kiyoshi Kuromiya

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Mixed media, 4" x 5"
Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Mixed media, 4″ x 5″

I really believe that activism is therapeutic.”

– Kiyoshi Kuromiya

Kiyoshi Kuromiya was born in a Japanese internment camp in rural Wyoming during World War II. As a college student, he participated in some of the earliest demonstrations of the civil rights movement: “Annual Reminders” held in Philadelphia in the 1960s on the 4th of July.

He was active in many capacities in the gay community, notably as a gay delegate to the Black Panthers convention when they endorsed the fight for gay rights, as a proponent for medical marijuana, and as a litigant against the Communications Decency Act. Despite all this, he was probably best known as an AIDS activist. After his own diagnosis in 1989, he founded an AIDS resource center that served as a nexus for information, support, and action.

Fun fact: Kuromiya assisted Buckminster Fuller in writing a book on technology, and was a nationally ranked Scrabble player.

Pride Project #20 – Lesbian Pirates

Lesbian Pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Lesbian Pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Although some accounts differ and some have been clearly “straightened up”, there is enough evidence to count Anne Bonney and Mary Read as Lesbian Pirates, who not only established reputations as among the toughest of the rough-and-tumble pirates on the high seas, but were a couple as well.

Anne was known in her hometown of Charleston, circa 1710, as a rowdy tomboy with short hair. After a series of infamous incidents involving taverns, swords, and beating a would-be suitor with a chair, she eloped and her father disinherited her. She soon left her husband and took off for the Bahamas where pirates, homosexuals, and ne’er-do-wells headquartered. Told that she needed a man for protection, she linked herself with a man and his mistress, then with Calico Jack (part inspiration for Johnny Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean) who was so named because of his flamboyant patterned dress and was suspected of being gay. Was this the first bearded relationship among pirates??

Anne plotted many pirate takedowns of other ships, and also of men who paid her too much attention. She eventually felt that she didn’t need Calico Jack for protection, and threw him out of the captain’s quarters so that she could live there alone.

As for Mary Read, her mother dressed her in boys’ clothes and called her “Mark” so that she could inherit family money (something girls weren’t allowed to do in England at that time). Her mother disowned Mary when she realized that Mary actually preferred being Mark. Mary ended up in the Bahamas, having been a footboy, then a soldier, then a sailor, then captured by pirates and finally persuaded to join their crew (as Mark). This is where she met Anne, and they were joined at the hip, living together in the captain’s quarters. As time went by, Calico Jack either became jealous (I’m not so sure) or wanted an upgrade to his living arrangement and burst in on the master suite. He found the two pirates in bed, with an undressed Anne poised over the undressed and obviously female “Mark”. This is where the story gets “straightened up” because many historians maintain that Anne had believed she was about to go to bed with “Mark”, discovering Mary’s true identity at exactly the same moment as Calico Jack. This is completely ridiculous, given how intimately they’d been living, but it’s in keeping with a straight narrative that would rather portray Anne as a loose woman with lots of male suitors rather than a self-possessed lesbian in control of her sexuality.

At some point, Mary goes back to her real name and the two women infamously conduct many raids together. Once, Mary kills an ex-lover of Anne’s out of jealousy. They’re eventually caught, tried, and sentenced to hang. They escape execution by claiming they’re pregnant (highly unlikely, but a common – and successful – plea for women at that time), but Mary dies in prison. Anne disappears from history at this point, though claims that she married and returned to Charleston or became a nun sound like more “straightening up” to me.

Pride Project #19 – “Gay Bar” Is Published

"Gay Bar" Is Published, Mixed media, 5" x 5"
“Gay Bar” Is Published, Mixed media, 5″ x 5″

In 1955, a straight divorced woman named Helen Branson writes about her experiences running a gay bar in Los Angeles. The book is groundbreaking in its treatment of queers as regular people, and casts them in a (mostly) positive light. Branson writes about their “normal”, everyday jobs – they are plumbers and printers. She writes that they thoughtfully bring Branson gifts, and invite her to parties. The affection that Branson feels for her customers is real, and it sounds like it’s returned.

There is, unfortunately, blatant homophobia directed at drag queens and queers that don’t pass as straight, and this is painful for me to read. She recounts how she is deliberately rude to them, chasing them away because she is repulsed by their rebelliousness and need for attention. In short, she doesn’t want her place to become That Kind of Bar. It was actually shocking to read this, but then I remember that it’s the 1950s, where fitting in is everything. To be fair, in its day, the book would have been seen as cutting edge and supportive. The publisher, for example, worked with the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, two queer activist groups, and also published One: The Homosexual Magazine.

It also feels all-too-contemporary in a way, because there is still so much homophobia, and let’s not forget, internalized homophobia by us queer folks. The murders in Orlando have brought this more to the forefront because even if people are well-meaning, they have been giving themselves away all week with their comments.

Pride Project #18 – Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley, ink on board, 3 1/2" x 5"
Gladys Bentley, ink on board, 3 1/2″ x 5″

“La Bentley”, as she was sometimes known, was famous in the Harlem Renaissance for her talents (as a musician and charismatic performer who invented obscene lyrics to current pop songs), her sexuality (she bragged about marrying a woman in Atlantic City), her size (she showcased her 300 pound frame almost exclusively in white tuxedos) and her comfort with her body, her self, and her place in the world. Although many artists and musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance were queer, she seems to have been the only one to make her sexuality a central part of her appeal. She didn’t try to pass or live as a man; she was emphatically a woman, though one living with the braggadocio and joie de vivre that was considered men’s territory.

Sadly, in the 1950s, with the rise of McCarthyism, Gladys Bentley denounced her queer identity. She wrote an article that declared her love of men, and blamed her earlier identity on trying to please her mother, who had taunted Gladys with the fact that she had wished for a son. She traded her tuxedos for skirts, and claimed to have married a man (though the man in question denied it completely).

She died not long after, but I’ll remember her as “La Bentley”, owning the stage and wooing the ladies.

Pride Project #17 – Jewel’s Catch One

Jewel's Catch One, Mixed media, 3 1/2" x 5"
Jewel’s Catch One, Mixed media, 3 1/2″ x 5″

More on the importance of gay bars, both to honor Pride Month and the murder victims at Pulse in Orlando.

Jewel’s Catch One in Los Angeles was THE nightclub to go to in the 1970s. When AIDS struck in the 80s, the club took on an even more pivotal role in the gay community: owner Jewel Thais-Williams became a certified Chinese healer and opened a health clinic next door in order to help the community. She fed and sheltered many AIDS patients at the club, organized fundraisers, and started a foundation for women and children with AIDS.

The club closed in 2015 after 42 years, but the clinic is still open and never turns away a patient.

Pride Project #16 – First Supreme Court Victory

First Supreme Court Victory (One: The Homosexual Magazine), Mixed media, 3 1/2" x 5"
First Supreme Court Victory (One: The Homosexual Magazine), Mixed media, 3 1/2″ x 5″

In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the queer community for the first time, when they ordered that the Post Office must deliver One: The Homosexual Magazine, which the USPS had refused to do.

Pride Project #14 – Tee Corrine

Tee Corrine (after The Cunt Coloring Book), 3 1/2" x 5"
Tee Corrine (after The Cunt Coloring Book), 3 1/2″ x 5″

Tee Corrine’s photographs depicted lesbian sexuality. She deliberately and respectfully portrayed women of all body types and sizes, disabilities, ages, and ethnicities. Perhaps her best-known work is the Cunt Coloring Book. It wasn’t uncommon for printers to refuse to work with her due to this subject matter.

Once, after a photograph was rejected with a rude critique that Corrine felt objectified her subjects by discussing a perceived age difference between them, a short hairstyle and drooping breasts, she vowed:

You fucker, I’ll make that picture famous”.

True to her word, the photo became a best-selling poster that year. Yessss.

Pride Project #13 – Sip-in at Julius, 1966

Sip-in at Julius, 1966; Ink on board, 4" x 5"
Sip-in at Julius, 1966; Ink on board, 4″ x 5″

I’m still sad and stunned by the murders at the gay bar in Orlando yesterday morning, so it seems appropriate to explore gay bars in today’s #Pride Project.

At one time it was illegal for gays to be served alcohol. (Can you imagine?). This was true around the country. In the case of New York state, the law said that alcohol couldn’t be served to the “disorderly”, and gays were inherently considered disorderly. Therefore, they were regularly denied service. Of course, if you could pass as straight, you could drink, but if you wanted to socialize with a group of friends, or try to meet someone, these situations tended to attract attention. Obviously, this was way before Tinder and online dating sites, so going out somewhere and presenting yourself in person was the best way to grow your social life. You can see the problems here.

In 1966 – three years before the riots at the Stonewall Inn that began the Pride era – three members of the Mattachine Society, a gay men’s activist club, decided to announce they were gay before ordering drinks. They had written a script on Mattachine stationery, which they read aloud:

We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.

Interestingly, they had to try three times that day: the first bar they went to had sensed something in the air and closed early, and they were served at the second, with the bartender saying “How do I know they’re homosexual? They ain’t doing nothing homosexual”.

At the third bar, Julius, which was popular with the gay community even though they were harassed by the staff, the bartender started to pour but had second thoughts and covered the drink with his hand. This image was captured by a photographer, and the not-very-tasteful New York Times headline the next day blared:

3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars

The case went to federal court, and the eventual ruling said that queers had the right to assemble peacefully. This not only opened the door to the legal operation of gay bars as we know them, but the ability to enter any establishment and be treated like everyone else. Of course, because of harassment at other places, many queers have traditionally felt more comfortable at gay bars.

Julius still exists, and earlier this year was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Even though technology has given us other ways of meeting people and socializing, gay bars are still important in our community. Unfortunately, many are shutting down, but let’s toast to Julius, Pulse in Orlando, and your own neighborhood gay bar. They serve an important purpose.

Pride Project #12 – Prince Manvendra Singh Gonil

Prince Manvendra Singh Gonil, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
Prince Manvendra Singh Gonil, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

In the immediate wake of the hate crime in Orlando last night that killed 49 people (and possibly still counting) at a gay club, this Pride Painting is dedicated to all those affected by this sad moment. It makes me indescribably sad that while I’ve been compiling important queer moments these past 12 days, another one has simultaneously happened that will live on in queer history, because this killing now stands as the deadliest act of gun violence ever in the US.

While the Pride posts this month have been realistic about the limitations placed on our heroes, and the wrongs committed against our community, they are really about celebrating and honoring queer people and achievements. The emphasis is on the act of celebrating.

So while my heart is heavy with this news from Orlando, I don’t want our joy to be completely lost today. So in the spirit of celebrating our empowerment, and honoring our forebears, let me introduce Prince Manvendra Singh Gonil, the world’s first (and right now, only) openly gay royal. He came out in 2006, when it was still illegal to be queer in India (thankfully, the law was changed in 2009).

His goal in coming out was to change people’s minds in India regarding queers, namely, that homosexuality isn’t a Western influence, that it isn’t a caste problem, and to educate everyone about HIV/AIDS.

He founded an organization in India that works with HIV+ individuals, and in his home state, supports a restaurant that employs openly out and HIV+ workers. He strongly believes in “mainstreaming” like this as a way to remove stigma. He knows that people who eat there will realize that it’s just another restaurant, thereby educating them and chipping away at the misunderstanding and misinformation.

He also founded India’s first LGBTQ retirement center, which is open to anyone around the world, no matter their religion, caste, nationality, or any other characteristic.